Chastened Brown set to send more troops to Afghanistan

PM to give all clear for 1,000 extra forces after critics claim he is not supporting military
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The Independent Online

The Government is expected to announce troop reinforcements for Afghanistan following intense criticism of its failure to agree to extra forces requested by commanders last spring.

The decision to deploy up to 1,000 more troops is likely to be made after a cabinet meeting on the conflict within the next seven days. Ministers had indicated that no more forces would be deployed while a shortfall remained in providing enough armoured vehicles for protection against roadside bombs, which have claimed 80 per cent of recent British lives lost.

There had also been suggestions that the British Government would not act on the issue until a decision is made by the Obama administration on sending between 20,000 and 40,000 extra troops requested by the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan.

However, according to senior Whitehall sources, Gordon Brown has been stung by attacks that he is failing to support the force in Helmand and is now "strongly veering" towards a fresh deployment. The Independent has learnt that the Prime Minister discussed Afghanistan with General Sir David Richards, the new head of the Army, at a Chequers lunch last Sunday, and the question of sending more soldiers was addressed in a separate half-hour meeting.

General Richards, a former Nato commander in Afghanistan, has long been an advocate of more "boots on the ground" and publicly stressed earlier in the week that reinforcements were necessary to reduce casualties and win "hearts and minds" of the population.

The current British strength of 9,100 is an increase from 8,400 earlier in the year. The Government had turned down the recommendation of service chiefs, backed by the then-Defence Secretary, John Hutton, for an uplift of 2,000 troops. Instead it authorised a temporary deployment of 700 to provide security for August's Afghan elections.

That 700-strong force has become a permanent presence after lobbying from senior officers, who believe that another 1,000 troops can be sent to the conflict without the forces being affected by "overstretch".

The Ministry of Defence acknowledged last week there would not be enough armoured vehicles for the current force of 9,100 until the end of next year. Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth subsequently appeared to rule out sending fresh forces: "Before I agree to any increase, I must be sure that the balance of risk is acceptable by evaluating the capacity of the supply chain to properly equip an increased force."

However, a senior Whitehall source said: "Senior officers, like General Richards, have been trying hard to convince ministers that having more troops on the ground provides its own security dimension and they appear to be making a convincing case for this. The final decision should come pretty soon."

The former head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, accused the Government of forcing the military to operate with "at least part of one arm tied behind one's back". He added: "The military advice has been for an uplift since the beginning of 2009. If the military says we need more troops and we can supply them, then frankly they should take that advice."

The latest member of British forces to die, from 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, was killed in an explosion at the town of Nad-e-Ali in Helmand on Monday. He was the first soldier to die from 11 Light Brigade, which had just deployed to the province.